You Can’t Eat Here (And Don’t Really Want to Anyway)

Forestville, California, is a census-designated place in Sonoma County, an area known for its vineyards, wineries, and bed-and-breakfasts. If you visited the area from 2012 to 2021 you could have stopped by a restaurant called “Backyard,” a Michelin-award-winning eatery that, as Sonoma Magazine reported, featured “fried chicken dinners, house fermented kimchi, chocolate budino tarts, lamb gyros and chicken pot pies.” It was a mainstay of the small community of about 3,500 residents and a destination for tourists who came to the area. 

But, despite the name, “Backyard” wasn’t actually in the owners’ backyard — they, like most restauranteurs, leased a building for their business. The idea of a high-end restaurant that is backyard-themed, though, isn’t unique to Forestville — you can imagine it anywhere. And in 2017, a similar concept came to London — and quickly, became one of the area’s most popular restaurants. 

Even though they put their feet on your plate.

Well, kind of.

In the fall of that year, a journalist named Oobah Butler opened a literal backyard restaurant, which he dubbed “The Shed at Dulwich” after the garden shed in his backyard in Dulwich, London. Like most other websites, it had a website and a menu; the website, which you can access here, describes the restaurant as “An appointment-only restaurant located in South London, The Shed has been operating privately for years. In 2017, it decided to open its doors. As of November that year, it was TripAdvisor’s top-rated restaurant in London.” And that last part is totally true. The rest, though, is a lie — as was everything else about the restaurant.

Butler, unlike most restauranteurs (and despite his last name), had no experience running any aspect of a restaurant — he wasn’t a particularly good cook, didn’t know how to run the front of the house, and may not have been able to even properly fold a napkin. But he did have experience in the marketing side of things, in a strange way. Before making his way as a journalist, Butler made a living however he could. And as he attested in an article for Vice, that included “writing fake reviews on TripAdvisor. Restaurant owners would pay me £10 and I’d write a positive review of their place, despite never eating there. Over time, I became obsessed with monitoring the ratings of these businesses. Their fortunes would genuinely turn, and I was the catalyst.” He realized two things: first, TripAdvisor was “a false reality” where “meals never took place” despite the reviews, and second, he could probably use this knowledge to pull off a prank. He was likely particularly fond of that second point; as Architectural Digest noted, he had “a penchant for mischief. His past pranks have included creating a fake fashion designer to bluff his way to the top of Paris Fashion Week, and fooling his way onto a British game show to mess with the cast members.” A fake restaurant with great ratings. Seemed like an obvious next step.

Butler enlisted some friends and got to work. He built a profile on TripAdvisor for The Shed at Dulwich, not adding a specific address in order to increase the mystery behind it. He created the above-linked website and posted photos of some of the dishes, but as the Washington Post explains, the food wasn’t actually edible; they were “artsy looking dishes made out of household products like bleach tablets and shaving cream. One photo showed an egg on a plate balancing gracefully off his foot, which was cropped out of the frame.”  (That’s the image above, and if you want to see a version that includes his foot, click here.) Even the menu — which is still available on the restaurant’s website, here — was ridiculous: it states “We don’t have a traditional menu, per se. Instead of meals, our menu is comprised of moods. You choose which fits your day, and our Chef interprets that.”

But ridiculousness sells, or, at least, creates demand. The fake reviews, the mysterious menu, and the fact that Butler never answered the burner phone he purchased to verify the TripAdvisor profile all added up to consumer interest. And, as the website states, in November 2017, The Shed at Dulwich somehow became the top-rated restaurant on the site for the London area.

So Butler did what any prankster would do: he opened the restaurant — for one night only. Ten guests were invited to dine for the low, low price of £1 — Butler told them that it was a special rate because a TV crew was filming the evening for a documentary — and ten of Butler’s acquaintances joined them to play the part of diners who were really into the meal. He served a mix of frozen meals and other cheap ingredients dressed up to look fancy (and no, he didn’t serve any feet, bleach, or shaving cream) and, to get extra space in his backyard, placed some tables on the roof. (If you want to see pictures from the evening — including the guests being blindfolded as they’re taken to the venue — read through his above-linked account on Vice.)

The prank worked, at least if you believe Butler. Per the Washington Post, “he said in his story and interviews that at least one patron — a non-actor — had asked whether he could book the restaurant again.”

Unfortunately for that guest, he couldn’t; The Shed at Dulwich closed its doors forever after that evening.

Bonus fact: California is home to a pair of McDonald’s that you can’t get a Big Mac at — because these Mickey D’s aren’t really restaurants: they’re TV studios. As Roadside America explains, “The official McDonald’s Production Studio is on a public street in an industrial area, and obviously not in a location that gets much street traffic. Seems weird unless you know that this is actually a filming set for commercials, TV, and movies. There are actually two McDonald’s on site: one looks like a suburban McDonald’s and the other looks like a city McDonald’s. They are next door to each other.” But from the outside, they look just like a regular McDonald’s, and yes, you can drive right by them — but not into the drive thru.

From the Archives: The Problem With Five-Cent Hot Dogs: A real restaurant with fake customers.